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Jeffrey Wright on his Oscar-nominated performance in 'American Fiction'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Jeffrey Wright has had one of the most varied and distinguished acting careers of recent decades.

While best known in supporting roles, he's now received his first Oscar nomination as the lead in "American Fiction," a film itself nominated for best picture.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with him for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Wright, Actor: Why are these books here?

Actor: I'm not sure. I would imagine that this author, Ellison, is Black.

Jeffrey Wright: That's me, Ellison.

Jeffrey Brown: In "American Fiction," plays Thelonious Ellison, known as Monk, a Black writer who finds himself rejected by publishers because his novels aren't Black enough, enough, that is, for a culture demanding just one kind of Black story.

Actor: I'm just going to put them back after you leave.

Jeffrey Wright: Don't you dare, Ned.

It's been in some ways energizing.

Jeffrey Brown: For the actor, who brought us to his favorite neighborhood cafe, Brooklyn Moon, in Brooklyn's Fort Greene section, the film presented a new kind of role, one that often hits close to home.

Jeffrey Wright: I usually have to reshape myself to find a character. I like working that way. I like to create characters, a different man, from one film to another. It allows me to be useful in many -- across many different genres.

Jeffrey Brown: And get outside yourself.

Jeffrey Wright: Get outside myself. And I like playing with the mask. So this was a unique one, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Wright starred in the 1996 film "Basquiat." But he's perhaps made his biggest mark through his brilliant, almost chameleon-like character roles.

Jeffrey Wright: I live in America, Louis. I don't have to love it.

Jeffrey Brown: In dramas such as "Angels in America," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Westworld," big blockbusters including "Hunger Games" and three Bond films, and the quirky world of Wes Anderson in "Asteroid City."

Jeffrey Wright: I have had people say, I didn't even realize that was you in the two movies I watched last week. I didn't realize -- I didn't recognize you from one to the other. I like that.

Jeffrey Brown: You do like that?

Jeffrey Wright: Yes. Yes. Yes, I like to create these characters.

Jeffrey Brown: So much goes on in your face.

Jeffrey Wright: Well, I think that the most forceful tool when working on film is the two eyes and the window. So I do try to use those with a certain, like, kind of subtle intensity.

Jeffrey Brown: You are thinking about that in some sense, or are you...

Jeffrey Wright: No, I'm just expressing story through the eyes.

ACTRESS: Yo, Sharonda, where you be going in a hurry like that?

If you got to know, I was going to the pharmacy.

Jeffrey Brown: In the eyes of Monk, an upper-middle-class writer from a family of doctors, bafflement, frustration, grief.

Jeffrey Wright: Why am I the last to know?

Sterling K. Brown, Actor: Because you love them too much.

Jeffrey Brown: "American Fiction," directed by first-time director Cord Jefferson, who adapted it from Percival Everett's novel "Erasure," is partly a send-up of today's publishing industry.

Facing more rejection, Monk writes an over-the-top street version of Black life using a pseudonym. To his shock, publishers love it. He's finally got a bestseller, except it's not a work he stands by, and it's not technically by him.

Actress: We love it.

Jeffrey Wright: What?

Actress: It is very...

Jeffrey Wright: Black?

Actress: Yes, that's it.

Jeffrey Brown: This film is certainly, at least partly, looking at the cliches of Black life as shown in popular culture, right? Did that resonate with you?

Jeffrey Wright: Oh, yes, certainly.

And I don't think it's restricted to the publishing world or to the world of film. I think it's across our culture that there's preconceptions or misrepresentations of who we are as individuals. I don't think it's necessarily confined to the Black experience either, this idea of not being seen.

I certainly understand the pressures that the character feels. I don't think that I necessarily share his frustration and rage. I think, maybe because of the way I work, I have been able to work my way around some of those obstacles that have been put in my way. I can't complain about my career.

Jeffrey Brown: That resistance that he's up against that you're playing, you know that...

Jeffrey Wright: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: ... but you haven't experienced it quite as much?

Jeffrey Wright: No, I have experienced it, but I don't know. Maybe I have outsmarted it.

Jeffrey Brown: Outsmarted it?

Jeffrey Wright: Yes, it's not impossible to do.

Jeffrey Brown: How did you do it?

Jeffrey Wright: I'm just better than that, just by being better than the resistance to who I am as an artist.

I have always thought that if I was good at what I did and I worked hard at it, that everything else would flow from that. When I was younger as an actor, I didn't want to make money. I just wanted to...

Jeffrey Brown: You didn't want to make money?

Jeffrey Wright: No, it wasn't an interest of mine.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Jeffrey Wright: I wanted to pay my rent, but it wasn't -- I wasn't doing it to pursue a lot of money. I wanted to be good at what I had chosen to do. I wanted to be a good actor.

And I figured everything else would take care of itself.

Jeffrey Brown: Wright cites the example of other actors who came before him, some still active today, including Leslie Uggams, who, in "American Fiction," plays his aging mother with increasing signs of dementia.

LESLIE UGGAMS, Actress: You look fat.

Jeffrey Wright: I know.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, it's the family relationships in the film that most resonated for Wright.

Actress: Books change people's lives.

Jeffrey Brown: His own mother, a lawyer who worked for the federal government, had died just a year before filming began. And a beloved aunt had come to live with him and his family.

Jeffrey Wright: So I had kids, and trying to make sure that she was well. The pandemic rushed in. And, yes, I was feeling pressure from a lot of sides.

And you kind of -- as the character in the film realizes, that kind of youthful, blissful delusion that, as you get older, life will become easier, yes, I was disabused of...

Jeffrey Brown: Not happening, huh?

Jeffrey Wright: No. No. That went away.

Jeffrey Brown: For now, at least there's a different kind of swirl in Jeffrey Wright's life, as he's feted and honored for his latest role.

Is this kind of recognition still important to you?

Jeffrey Wright: Yes, I think it's important when your peers and colleagues say, well done, when they show appreciation for the work and in this case for the film in such a generous way. Yes. Yes, that has meaning.

The thing that I like, that I have grown to appreciate about working on film is my responsibility when the camera rolls.

Jeffrey Brown: How do you define that responsibility?

Jeffrey Wright: It's to fill up the frame with whatever aspect of the story I'm responsible for. But that represents everyone's work. It represents the electricians' work, the gaffers, the grips, the people who work in the administrative office. It's all about what's happening in the frame at any given moment.

And when it's my responsibility to be that in that place, I like it. But I like that I'm a part of a larger whole. And that's my gig, is to tell the story.

Jeffrey Brown: Jeffrey Wright, congratulations, and thanks again.

Jeffrey Wright: Thank you, Jeffrey. Thank you for having me. And thank you for coming to the neighborhood.

Amna Nawaz: That's a great conversation.

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